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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Between Parentheses

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase Between Parentheses

Title: Between Parentheses
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2004) (Eng. 2011)
Length: 369 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Between Parentheses - US
Entre paréntesis - US
Between Parentheses - UK
Between Parentheses - Canada
Between Parentheses - India
Entre parenthèses - France
Tra parentesi - Italia
Entre paréntesis - España
  • Spanish titles: Entre paréntesis
  • Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Ignacio Echevarría
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer
  • Includes: 'The End: Distant Star', a Q & A with Mónica Maristain (see Spanish original)

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Our Assessment:

A- : enjoyable variety, infectious literary enthusiasm

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 28/7/2011 .
The Nation . 31/3/2008 Marcela Valdes
The National B- 10/6/2011 Scott Esposito
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/10/2011 Mark Ford
The NY Times . 8/6/2011 Dwight Garner
The Telegraph . 27/3/2012 Alastair Smart
TLS . 1/6/2012 Michael Kerrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "These essays are less a portrait than an artist’s statement, a pithy representation of Bolaño’s deeply held opinions and worldview. It is still worth reading. But it is best to view Bolaño's writing about literature like a romantic tribute to a beautiful, fickle and occasionally sadistic mistress." - The Economist

  • "(I)n the Spanish-speaking world, Bolaño is also renowned for his erudition. The onomastic index at the end of Between Parentheses contains 600 names, most of which represent a book, or a series of books, that Bolaño had read. (...) It's no exaggeration to say that Bolaño has become a T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf of Latin American letters. His influence on the younger generation of writers is considerable, and it derives as much from his fierce, lapidary opinions as it does from his fiction's style and imagination. (...) This is too much for the newcomer to Bolaño, for whom a selection of the better pieces would do. But for those interested in deciphering Bolaño's many influences, his values and his biography, and certainly for anyone whose appetite for reading is as insatiable as Bolaño's, the collection is a treasure chest: filled with straw and dust but also with odd glittering jewels and fistfuls of gold." - Marcela Valdes, The Nation

  • "Reading the columns, one is reminded that one of Bolaño's strengths was his ability to combine his rare dedication to literature with a barricade-rushing political sensibility. Pieces such as "Translation is an Anvil" do him proud, yet many of the columns make for some strange results. Again and again poets and suffering artists are singled out as both uniquely brave and uniquely able to endure pain. (...) The writing here is constantly in danger of falling into the fatuousness that Bolaño so harshly skewered, even if the tipsiness caused by Bolaño's thick irony frequently shields him from sounding too overwrought. (...) Still, after reading the far-too-many turgid pieces that one must conclude were only collected here for completeness's sake, such overwrought passion begins to look distinctly palatable." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "The excellent thing about Between Parentheses is how thoroughly it dispels any incense or stale reverence in the air. It’s a loud, greasy, unkempt thing. Reading it is not like sitting through an air-conditioned seminar with the distinguished Señor Bolaño. It’s like sitting on a barstool next to him, the jukebox playing dirty flamenco, after he’s consumed a platter of Pisco sours. (...) Bring a machete as well as a cocktail to Between Parentheses. There’s underbrush to be slashed. Writing on deadline for a fast paycheck, Bolaño could be windy, and whimsical to the point of absurdity." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Bolaño makes for a cantankerous companion at times (...) but one can only admire his typically dark humour in the face of terminal illness." - Alastair Smart, The Telegraph

  • "(A)s the reviews, essays and lectures collected in Between Parentheses attest, he wasn't shy of joining in the "bookchat", and by no means invariably in a caustic voice." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Between Parentheses collects several speeches by Roberto Bolaño, a large collection of short pieces written for a Catalan and then a Chilean newspaper -- a regular column Bolaño wrote, called 'Between Parentheses' --, as well as a variety of occasional pieces; the final piece is Mónica Maristain's Playboy interview with the author (see also the Spanish original). Between Parentheses is not a 'collected non-fiction' -- "this volume isn't defined by its zeal for exhaustiveness", warns editor Echevarría, and even dispenses with the 'Between Parentheses'-columns for which the Spanish originals could not be found -- but it is a substantial collection and offers a great deal for any Bolaño-fan. (Familiarity with and interest in modern Spanish-language literature are not necessarily prerequisites for proper enjoyment of the collection -- Bolaño's winning style makes even discussion of the unfamiliar appealing -- but certainly help.)
       These are largely stray bits and pieces; even when Bolaño tries to focus on a single subject or topic he tends to get carried away, name- (and title-)dropping, one thought inspiring the next. There is a good deal of autobiographical detail in these pages, but little that is presented in neat, orderly form. Several pieces are devoted to the subject of exile, as well as Bolaño's life abroad and then his first visits back to Chile after an absence of over two decades. Physical presence, however, matters less to him: rarely in the collection does he describe place (some rambling through Vienna, a few other odds and ends), and instead his focus remains on the written word. And while he occasionally discusses his own work, what comes across most strongly here is his identity as reader, rather than writer.
       Bolaño was certainly a good reader: the pieces collected here aren't literary criticism, but rather succinct impressions and observations; if not unerring, Bolaño nevertheless had an exceptionally fine literary sense; sharply observed, Between Parentheses can serve well as a guide to what-to-read-next.
       One piece is about the awarding of the 2002 Chilean Premio Nacional de Literatura -- a three-way competition between Volodia Teitelboim, Antonio Skármeta, and Isabel Allende. Bolaño finds the whole exercise fairly ridiculous, but pretends to take it seriously in reluctantly making the case for Allende, finding "her work highly superior to the work of born paper-pushers like Skármeta and Teitelboim". His argument beautifully sums up Allende's entire œuvre:

Allende's work is bad, but it's alive; it's anemic, like a lot of Latin Americans, but it's alive. It won't live long, like many sick people, but for now it's alive.
       There you have it: that's all that needs be said about Allende and her work -- and such summing-up is a feat Bolaño pulls off repeatedly throughout this volume, both in praising and dismissing authors. (As to the National Prize: Teitelboim took it that year; Allende only received it in 2010; Skármeta has so far come up empty.)
       The authors Bolaño repeatedly draws attention to -- aside from perennial favorite, Nicanor Parra , and the grand old masters, foremost among them Borges -- include many who have now deservedly vaulted to the fore but at the time were largely unknown outside the Spanish-speaking countries.
       Among those he points to are:

       César Aira: "a man whose position in contemporary literature in Spanish is as complicated as the position of Macedonio Fernández was at the turn of the century" -- and:
     Aira is an eccentric, but he's also one of the three or four best Spanish-language writers alive today.
       Horacio Castellanos Moya:
He's a melancholic and he writes as if from the bottom of one of his country's many volcanoes. This sounds like magical realism. But there's nothing magic about his books, except possibly the boldness of his style.
       Javier Cercas: (whom he met when Cercas was only seventeen):
Cercas has come home to write the big books that are up in his head. He's back home to become one of the best writers in the Spanish language. Only great challenges make it worthwhile to pack up and move all one's books.
       Rodrigo Rey Rosa, whose prose he finds: "methodical and judicious":
To say that Rodrigo Rey Rosa is the most rigorous writer of my generation and at the same time the most transparent, the best crafter of stories and the brightest star, is to say nothing new.
       Enrique Vila-Matas, whose Bartleby & Co. he writes about, concluding that he is: "a writer who has no equal in the contemporary landscape of the Spanish novel"

       There's also praise for less well-known works -- Juan Rodolfo Wilcock's "The Temple of Iconoclasts is one of the best books of the twentieth century", he maintains (and devotes two separate pieces to this work that also obviously influenced his own Nazi Literature in the Americas):
without a doubt one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the twentieth century.
       There are very rare missteps -- Thomas Harris' Hannibal wouldn't be the novel to make a case for him (though Bolaño does emphasize: "He isn't a great novelist.") -- but on the whole Bolaño's touch and feel are remarkably sure (writing about Philip K. Dick, he suggests: "Dick is good even when he's bad"; Martin Amis' Experience is summed up as: "a brilliant, pedantic, bland autobiography") and it's reassuring to hear that among authors he doesn't like are Michael Chabon and Chuck Palahniuk. In any case, the taste of any writer who champions Gombrowicz -- with the beautiful rallying cry, "All is not lost, Ferdydurkists" -- and manages to slip in mention of Hans Henny Jahnn can surely be trusted
       Between Parentheses is a hodgepodge of pieces (with a very strong literary bent), but there are rich pickings and well-turned sentences and ideas throughout.
       What's most appealing about these writings is the pervasive joyful optimism and enthusiasm: Bolaño's belief in literature and all its wonder shines through. In this these writings resemble Borges' non-fiction -- and differ from, say, Nabokov's: equally convinced of the greatness of 'art', Nabokov had little interest or patience for anything that did not meet his exacting standards. Bolaño, on the other hand, was willing to consider anything -- and could find positives even in failures, with very few writers dismissed out of hand.
       Typically, Bolaño suggests:
     How to recognize a work of art ? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate ? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever), and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings: not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
       Some of these pieces are incidental, but few are trivial: even where these were perhaps thought of as little more than filler-columns, Bolaño offers thoughts and observations, or a way of looking at something, that are of interest. And his literary opinions are always worth paying attention to (even if much of the material he mentions is not (yet) available in English translation).
       Between Parentheses is an entertaining, appealing collection -- a bit of a sprawling mess (and rather than simply reprint the 2004 Spanish collection, it would have been nice if the English version had been expanded to be a 'complete non-fiction'), but still quite the treasure-trove. Certainly recommended to anyone interested in the author, or modern Spanish-language literature.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 June 2011

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Between Parentheses: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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